It’s both a salesperson’s worst nightmare and an everyday occurrence: You find a promising lead with all the makings of a sale. You make the call with contact name and a perfectly crafted and well-rehearsed opening line at the tip of your tongue. The receptionist answers. “I can take a message for you,” she says. “No, I’m sorry. She does not have voice mail. No, she does not use email.” You do not get through. The opening line dies in your mouth along with your enthusiasm.
Getting through the gatekeeper is far from impossible. In fact, gatekeeper know-how is a must-have in your sales tool arsenal, says Steve Schiffman, a sales trainer and consultant who has 50 best-selling books, including The 25 Sales Habits of Highly Successful Salespeople and ColdCalling Techniques (That Really Work!). “You need to have a plan to get past the gatekeeper to the decision maker— that is part of the sales call.”
Get the Name
“The biggest mistake salespeople make is not asking for the right person,” Schiffman says. If you find yourself without the name of the appropriate decision maker, ask the receptionist for a contact by title, as opposed to “decision maker” or “your boss.” “By asking, ‘Who is the IT manager?’ you’re asking the receptionist to come to the conclusion for you,” which makes him or her feel helpful and more likely to transfer you directly through.
If this doesn’t work, speak to the gatekeeper as if her boss is in fact in charge of purchasing for your product.
“Simply start the conversation as if their boss is the right person to speak to,” Schiffman says. “This is called ‘pattern interrupt.’ It isn’t what the person expects the conversation to be like, and they will immediately correct you” and offer the right decision maker.
Before the Call
Tim Askew, head of sales consultancy Corporate Rain International, coaches his clients to send snail mail letters on fine stationery addressed to the executives they hope to engage. “This makes a statement of seriousness and quality before they even open the envelope,” Askew says. In this letter, briefly introduce yourself and your business, and mention the return on investment you can provide. These initial letters and calls do not ask anything of the recipient. You may choose to send an email instead.
This initial correspondence introduces you and your purpose and provides a point of reference to initiate a conversation with the gatekeeper, such as, “Did you happen to get the letter I sent? You should have received it yesterday.”
During the Call
To get through to the decision maker, you must think like the decision maker. This applies to gatekeepers who are often in tune with what their bosses are seeking, says Jill Konrath, sales consultant and author of SNAP Selling and Selling to Big Companies.
“You have to stop thinking about your message from the perspective of the person calling,” Konrath says. “Your entire purpose is to create a message so the person hearing it says, ‘Ooh, my boss would be interested in this. I’d better pass it on.’ ”
This very brief introduction should include your name and company and then connect with a business outcome. This can include a referral, mention of working with a similar client—whether in the same industry or similar job title—or mention of a challenge this decision maker might face. “This shows you really know their business,” Konrath says.
Askew emphasizes that “executives like doing business with their peers. You need to project a certain gravitas and focus on their problems from the very beginning of the process. This includes how you interact with their assistant who is paid to pick up on this tone and knows within a half-second whether they’re dealing with someone who is serious.”
Do the Follow-up
Konrath suggests that for larger companies, plan on 10 to 12 touches that mix voice and email. “You don’t know the preference of the person you’re calling,” she says. “And email is easier to respond to.” She suggests email messages of fewer than 100 words that can be viewed in their entirety in the preview function.
Always look ahead to the next step. If you leave a message with the gatekeeper, Askew recommends nailing down the next event. For example, tell the assistant you will resend the letter via email, and ask whether a call the following day is enough time for the decision maker to review it. Ask about a specific time to call back or when the decision maker’s calendar can accommodate a conference call.
“There is no magic bullet,” Askew says. “You have to be a peer and speak the language of decision making. That language is ROI that focuses on them—even through their assistants.”
Name: Matt Gambino
Company: Catapult Learning, provider of education services
Title: VP of Marketing and Inside Sales, also an independent sales consultant
Technique: We call on school superintendents, which in and of itself is a challenge. These are extremely busy people, and their position is usually as an elected official and short-term. They are very good at training their gatekeepers to cut salespeople off at the pass.
My tactic is to make connections with the superintendents outside of their offices so I have a strong connection with them before I even have to deal with the gatekeeper. We attend many conferences where we know a lot of superintendents will be in attendance—even if we’re not exhibiting there. That way I can get in the foreground of their minds so that when I do call they’ll make the connection. When we chat I always ask, “The next time I’m in your town, who is the person who handles your calendar, and what should I tell them to get a meeting with you?” That is a way of saying, “We met, we’re friends, who is your gatekeeper?” and suggesting the superintendent makes sure to tell the secretary to expect my call.
When I do call and get the gatekeeper, I’ll mention my meeting and where I met the superintendent. I might say, “I was instructed by X person at the recent Y conference to reach out to you before I came to town so you could find a place on his calendar so the two of us can meet.”
Back-pocket, last-ditch tool: If I can’t seem to get through the gatekeeper, I might take a look at current events affecting the organization. When I call I might say, “My name is Matt Gambino from Catapult Learning. I see in [local newspaper] that there’s a threat to close half the schools in your district. How do you plan to handle that?” If a lower-level employee perceives that the call relates to a crisis, they have to take their cues from someone else, and that increases the chances I’ll get through. Eight out of 10 times, they’ll pass it on to the gatekeeper.
Name: Dan Jones
Company: BDO USA, LLP, accounting services
Title: Director of Business Development, Boston Office
Technique: I’ve had 27 years’ experience making a direct attack on the gatekeeper, and while there are a lot of games you can play and try to trick the gatekeeper, I always try to be honest and sincere. When I have asset managers calling me in my personal life with these games, I go, “Wow! I can’t believe you did that!” It is sleazy, and I don’t like it. So I don’t use it in my professional life.
That said, the best tool is to try to bypass the gatekeeper by calling when they’re not there. I call between 1 and 2 p.m., because that is when the receptionist is at lunch and someone from the administrative staff takes that role. That person is not really focused on doing the job well, and they tend to let people through the gate.
You can also try between 7 and 8:30 a.m. before the gatekeeper gets in, but the decision maker is likely hard at work. They’re often distracted so that when their phone rings they tend to pick up.
Or, try after 5 p.m. when the gatekeeper has gone home and you reach the automated voice system, which increases your chances of reaching the decision maker directly.
Back-pocket, last-ditch tool: I don’t mind making initial contact through voice mail. Gatekeepers often want to take a message by paper. I don’t like to do that. I don’t know if they’re going to get it. I don’t like relying on someone else. And a paper message is not memorable.
If the best I can do is voice mail, I leave a straightforward message about why I called. I briefly describe my firm and why it is beneficial for us to speak further. I don’t leave multiple voice mails. If I do, the next one will be two or three months later.
Name: Francis Rivera
Company: Cintas, maker of workplace uniforms and restroom supplies
Title: Sales representative, 2010 Rookie of the Year, President’s Club (representing top 10 percent of sales representatives)
Technique: In my business, we call the gatekeepers “bulldogs,” and their job is to not let anyone through the phone. When you call, it’s important to right away ask for the decision maker. Act as if you have a good relationship with the decision maker. Ask for the person by their first name—if you’re good buddies with them, you’re not going to call them Mr. or Mrs. “Good morning. Is William there? Thank you.” There is no “please,” no pausing. If you hesitate, they’re going to eat you up.
I don’t bother to reference potential problems I can solve. It’s not the gatekeeper’s job to care about these problems. It’s over her head. If it weren’t over her head, she wouldn’t be a gatekeeper.
That said, if after several calls the gatekeeper still won’t play ball, I ask her name and make friends with her. I’ll ask her name and say, “What are the chances you’re going to help me out today?” Address the individual with respect instead of trying to diminish her and make her feel inferior.
Back-pocket, last-ditch tool: If nothing else works, ask to be transferred to the sales department. You’ll always get through, and you can talk to them as one sales representative to another sales representative. You have that brotherhood of understanding, and they might help you out.
Emma Johnson is a business journalist, gender-equality activist, and founder of the world's largest community of single moms, WealthySingleMommy.com. Emma and her best-selling book, The Kickass Single Mom, and her organization, Moms for Shared Parenting, have been featured in hundreds of national and international media outlets.